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Confucianism — Definition, Founder, Beliefs, History, and Facts

Confucianism Definition

Confucianism, one of the most influential philosophical schools, has been the dominant official ideology in Chinese history for over 2000 years. 

It was created by Confucius (551 BC — 479 BC), based on the hierarchy and etiquette system of the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 771 BC). 

This traditional Chinese philosophical school encompasses virtue, humanity, rites and rituals, governance, moral and behavioral standards, educational methodology, conception, and society. 

Its primary purpose was to establish a society with decent civilians, high moral standards, loyal and capable officials, and intelligent and benevolent monarchs.

Ritual Jade (Yu Bi) of State Lu During the Warring States Period

Ritual Jade (Yu Bi) of the Warring States Period (403 BC — 221 BC) — Shandong Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Confucianism Founder and Origin Background

The Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC — 403 BC) that Confucius lived in was an era of separation when many powerful overlords searched for expansion, and the power of the kings kept shrinking. 

Therefore, the Rites and Rituals and Feudalism System built in the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 771 BC) was falling apart, as well as the ideology of the king's Mandate of Heaven. 

In this era, Confucius gradually founded Confucianism ideology by opening up the first private school in Chinese history, traveling and presenting his ideas to overlords, and editing and writing classics. 

Confucius teaching his students

Great Philosopher Confucius and His Students

In his opinion, societies under the reigns of King Yao (about 2377 BC — 2259 BC), King Shun (about 2287 BC — 2067 BC), and the early Western Zhou Dynasty were quite idealistic. 


During those eras, benevolent kings brought civilians stable lives, and officials and civilians respected their sovereigns.

However, ambitious warlords preferred ideas to make their states powerful and win wars.


Therefore, Confucian thoughts were not quite popular among the ruling class.

Decades later, Confucianism and Mohism became the two foremost philosophical schools in China, which were widely spread and studied by intellectuals. 

Temple and Cemetery of Confucius and the Kong Family Mansion in Qufu

Temple and Cemetery of Confucius and the Kong Family Mansion in Qufu, Firstly Built in 478 BC and Had been Expanded and Reconstructed for Several Times in History, Biggest Temple to commemorate Confucius and His Exceptional Students.

History and Development of Confucianism

When Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor in the history of China who built the Great Wall and Terracotta Army, established the Qin Dynasty (221 BC — 207 BC), Legalism was respected as the only dominant ideology. 

In the meantime, as well as other philosophical schools, Confucianism was highly suppressed and abrogated. 

After the Qin Dynasty was overthrown, monarchs of the next empire implemented the Taoism Philosophy.


Until 134 BC, Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty sought advice from the Confucian philosopher Dong Zhongshu and revered Confucianism as the dominant ideology.

Afterward, monarchs of the following two millenniums in the history of China barely changed this policy.


However, they were usually applied with other ideologies, like Taoism or Legalism, in their governance. 

Meanwhile, Confucian ethics and thoughts have been a fundamental social code and belief system of Chinese people and some East Asians.

Debris (Xi Ping Shi Jing) of Official Confucianism Classics Carved on Stone (175 — 183)

Debris (Xi Ping Shi Jing) of Official Confucianism Classics Carved on Stone (175 — 183) — National Museum of China (Photo by Ayelie)

Teachings and Classics of Confucianism — Four Books, Five Classics, and Six Arts

Four Books

  • Great Learning or Da Xue


An introduction article regarding the ultimate purpose of learning and the means of self-cultivation and improvement of virtues. 


  • The Doctrine of the Mean or Zhong Yong


Discuss humanity and how the Doctrine of Mean is the best moral standard.


  • Analects of Confucius or Lun Yu


The book records the words, actions, and teachings of Confucius and his students.

  • Mencius or Meng Zi


The book records the words and actions of the great philosopher Mencius (or Meng Zi) and his students. 

Commentaries of Four Books by Great Confucisnist Zhu Xi (1130 — 1200), Edition Printed in 1480

Commentaries of Four Books by Great Confucianist Zhu Xi (1130 — 1200), Edition Printed in 1480 — Shandong Museum (Photo by AlexHe34)

Five Classics

  • The Classic of Poetry or Shi Jing

Including 305 poems from around the 11th Century BC to the 6th Century BC, edited by Confucius. It is the first poetry anthology in China.


Among them, 160 are folk songs from different states, 105 are noble songs, and 40 are used in grand imperial worship and sacrifice rites. The kinds of music of these songs were gone, but the lyrics were well preserved and learned as Confucian classics.


  • Book of Documents or Shang Shu


Important historical documentation from King Yao (about 2377 BC — 2259 BC) and King Shun (about 2287 BC — 2067 BC) to the middle of the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC —  403 BC).


It mostly recorded the words and actions of exceptional ancient kings and was organized and compiled by Confucius, 


  • The Classic of Rites or Li


Mainly concerning the official system and Rites and Rituals of the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 771 BC), daily etiquette, and important ceremonies, such as Coming of Age (Guan Li) and Wedding Ceremony


  • Book of Changes or I-Ching or Zhou Yi


A book about the universe and divination includes 64 Hexagrams and related explanations, philosophical ideas, history, and ethnic beliefs. 


  • Annals of Spring and Autumn or Chun Qiu


The first annals in China; recorded and discussed the history of the State Lu, the hometown of Confucius, from 722 BC to 481 BC. 

Modern Edition of the Four Books and Five Classics of Confucianism

Modern Edition of the Four Books and Five Classics

Six Arts


Six important skills were taught to nobles in the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 771 BC), which became important educational contents of aristocracy in ancient Chinese history. 


Etiquette (Li), Music (Yue), Archery (She), Equestrianism (Yu), Calligraphy (Shu), and Mathematics (Shu).

Six Arts (Liu Yi) of Confucianism and Aristocratic Education in Ancient China

Six Arts (Liu Yi) the Aristocratic Education in Ancient China 

Confucianism Beliefs and Values

  • Virtue and self-cultivation is the fundamental requirement for everyone.


People from all occupations and all social classes should try and obtain basic Confucian ethics, including “Benevolence, Righteousness, Propriety, Wisdom, Faithfulness, Loyalty, Filial Piety, and Continence”. 

  • People are born with good instincts; proper moral education could activate and cultivate inner human goodness and guide them to behave in decent ways.  

  • Hierarchy, order, and etiquette (in a family, organization, or the whole society) are highly valued, while the ruling class's power should be restrained.

  • Intelligent people should try and participate in politics, and they are responsible for the prosperity of their country.

Unearthed Jade Dragons (Yu Jue) of the Spring and Autumn Period

Jade Dragons (Yu Jue) of the Spring and Autumn Periods— Nanyang Antique Archaeology Institute (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Influential Philosophers and Branches of Confucianism


Throughout Chinese history, the foundational concepts and essence of Confucianism have been meticulously passed down.

However, exceptional philosophers have developed and adjusted it several times, resulting in the formation of many branches.

Confucius or Kong Zi

Confucius (551 BC — 479 BC), Kong Zi or Master Kong, extended education from nobles to civilians, and valued benevolence, etiquette, loyalty, hierarchy, self-cultivation, and the Doctrine of the Mean.


He established the essential classics and education methods and presented the fundamental model of a perfect society and virtuous people. 

Mencius or Meng Zi

Mencius (372 BC — 289 BC), or Meng Zi, proposed the theory of the original goodness of human nature.


He believed that civilians' well-being should be prioritized over monarchs'; a benevolent king would get support and respect, while a tyrant would be overthrown by his people. ​

Unearthed Bronze Carriage of the Warring States Period

Bronze Carriage of the Warring States Period (403 BC — 221 BC) — Nanjing Museum 

Xun Zi


Xun Zi (313 BC — 238 BC), or Xun Qing, proposed the theory of the original evilness of human nature. 


Hence, people’s kindness, morals, and moral behaviors were consequences of a good education, endless self-cultivation, and the implementation of proper laws.

Dong Zhongshu

Dong Zhongshu (179 BC — 104 BC), or Dong Zi, developed ancient Confucianism based on theories of other philosophical schools and knowledge of Yin Yang and the Five Elements.


His new ideology, which included Grand Unification, Divine Rights of Kings, and Interactions Between Heaven and Mankind, was accepted and then promoted as the dominant ideology by his emperor in 134 BC. 

Great Philosopher Dong Zhongshu

Great Philosopher Dong Zhongshu

Zhu Xi or Zhu Zi


Zhu Xi (1130 — 1200), or Zhu Zi, organized and developed a new ideology, Neo-Confucianism, or the Theory of Li, which then was regulated as the main subject of Imperial Examinations and official philosophy until the Qing Dynasty ended in the year 1912. 

It included theories of the universe and humanity, relationships of knowledge and practice, and so on. 

Wang Shouren or Wang Yangming

Wang Shouren (1472 — 1529), also known as Wang Yangming, introduced the idealistic School of Mind.


This philosophy posited that one's consciousness is the law of nature and emphasized the unity of inner knowledge and action.

White Deer Grotto Academy in Mount Lu, Firstly Built in 940, Great Philosopher Zhu Xi Reconstructed and Taught there.

White Deer Grotto Academy in Mount Lu, Firstly Built in 940, Great Philosopher Zhu Xi Reconstructed and Taught there. 

Modern Confucianism in China

When the feudality system fell apart at the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1912, Confucianism declined and was strongly criticized. 

As the dominant ideology, many people believed that it should take responsibility for China's lagging in the recent century, which has been a significant obstacle in China's modernization, industrialization, and scientific development. 

An ancient ideology is not entirely adapted to the modern world; however, it is not only about feudal hierarchy. 

In recent decades, Chinese people started to accept and perceive Confucianism relatively objectively, by abandoning backward rules and learning its positive aspects, like literature, specific virtue, behavioral standards, self-cultivation, educational methodologies, communication, etc.

They are, and always will be, important parts of Chinese culture. 

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